Growing up in the dawn of the Internet Age, as children we were often told, “don’t trust strangers online,” and frightened with stories of abductors posing as digital friends. But, while we have always been vigilant of an individual with a misleading online identity, right now we face a new threat with strong ramifications for democracy and discourse – the manipulation of not one online persona, but of the digital populace as a whole.
Last week, I described how Web 2.0 technologies –specifically Twitter – can be manipulated to create a faux story and how current election law is likely unable to do anything to stop abuse by a campaign trying to perpetrate such an act. Today, I’d like to discuss how the Internet could be manipulated to create a faux reaction.
The source of this threat is sockpuppets. Sockpuppets – in general – are online identities designed to present a deceptive portrayal. While individuals have employed sockpuppets since the earliest days of the Internet (the boogieman online abductor is the most infamous example), the issue at hand is use of sockpuppets in an unprecedented manner, one that is organized, systematic, and widespread. This possibility was described by the Daily Kos last week. They commented on leaked emails by tech security company, HBGary which describe software that develops sockpuppets en masse. Essentially, the software allows a small group of individuals to pose as an extremely large group of people online.
The impact of this is profound. And while politicians may not yet have learned to master the sockpuppet trick, this software gives them frightening power. Using it, campaigns can corrupt our discourse by overrunning, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube with hundreds – even thousands – of fake personas. These armies of sockpuppets can create an illusion of public perception and, with mainstream media increasingly looking to these forums as the basis of their coverage, this manufactured “public opinion” can quickly be transformed through an echo chamber to become reality.
Two legal issues confine our ability to react to this threat. The first is election law. As I described last week, the social media sites at issue here provide a platform of free online media and thus, are not subject to election law as is paid media. This gives campaigns anonymity to act, and no legal obligation to disclose their activities. The fact that this – unlike an individual faux Twitter account – involves complex and likely expensive software does provide a wrinkle that might allow us to apply election law, but hiring a new media consultant who possesses it seems to be an easy enough loophole to use the technology without disclosing one’s activities to the public.
Free speech is the other legal factor that burdens our ability to react to sockpuppets. Anonymity can, on one hand, be an essential feature to preserving free speech; news sources serve as a clear-cut example of this. However, this form of concealment seems to be subverting free speech more than actually serving it. At a time when weighing free speech against state interests, – notably in the context of Internet and secrecy – has become a major issue in America, this technology possibly brings us to a point of drawing a line in the sand. And with social media now serving as a tool of reform and revolution, the potential impact is enormous.
The role of the Internet, and how it affects the democratic process, is a question that will continue to arouse debate and discussion. The Internet appears inherently democratic because of its egalitarianism; it empowers us by providing an unlimited ability to communicate and acquire knowledge, putting all people on an equal ground. However, as sockpuppets show, any powerful force for democracy can become a force for consolidating power, and this is a lesson me must always be vigilant of.
Image by Tim Murtaug